Saturday, November 1, 2008

Everglades - North

On Monday, October 20, we would drive to the Florida Keys, but along the way, we drove the Tamiami Trail across Big Cypress National Preserve, along the north side of Everglades National Park. Our first stop was the Gulf Coast Visitor Center in Everglades City, in the northwest corner of Everglades National Park. Other than a boat tour which we weren’t planning to take, there wasn’t much going on there so we continued along after a quick stop.

Our next stop was the Big Cypress National Preserve Visitor Center. At the visitor center there was a stream that hosted several alligators.

IMG_0347 by PunIntented
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Next, we checked out Clyde Butcher’s gallery in Ochopee. Sometimes called the “Ansel Adams of the Everglades,” Butcher has devoted his life to photographing the Everglades in black and white. He uses large-format cameras that allow him to produce prints up to five feet by eight feet, beautifully capturing the landscapes of the Glades. We were surprised at how well the Everglades photograph in black and white – perhaps the lack of color helps simplify the complex interplay of vegetation, water, and clouds, making the landscapes more accessible to viewers. The price points weren’t accessible to us, though – one photo was over $20,000 – but we nevertheless enjoyed looking through the gallery.

After admiring Butcher’s photos, we continued east along the Tamiami Trail to the Shark Valley Visitor Center, where visitors can take a tram tour around a 15-mile loop road. We’d read that if you only do one thing in the Everglades, you should do this, so we got on the 3:00 tour. We quickly discovered why Marjorie Stoneman Douglas called the Glades a “River of Grass”.

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IMG_6612 by PunIntented
Sawgrass is the predominant habitat in the Glades, and in some places where the water is less evident, it looks as much like bison habitat as anything. Then a great blue heron or great egret flies by, jolting you back to the reality that despite grassy appearances, the entire area is covered in water.

We saw a few gators along the way.

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We even got to see some juvenile gators that were only a couple feet long. The adults are awfully scary-looking, but the kids are almost cute.

IMG_6619 by PunIntented
The past couple of years had been very dry in the Glades, but this year, there was an abundance of water. South Florida’s water management policy results in a feast-or-famine phenomenon for the Glades. In dry years, nearly all of the precious rainfall gets distributed via a complex system of canals to Miami and other population centers, with little left over for the glades. In wet years, like this one, the Glades get flooded, and a lot of water is also diverted straight to the ocean, wasted.

At times, the road was a lake, and riders on the open-sided tram got wet when the driver went too fast.

IMG_6624 by PunIntented
At the halfway point of the tour, we reached an observation tower.

IMG_0381 by PunIntented
Because the high point in the Everglades is only about 10 feet above sea level, the tower provided a unique bird’s-eye view of our surroundings.

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As we got back on the tram for the second half of our tour, we again wondered at the lake that passed for a road in this wet year.

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The best part of the tour was the near-constant display of waterfowl. Our tour guide was an enthusiastic identifier of birds, so during the course of the trip, we learned how to identify many of them.

We saw little blue herons and tricolor herons, but most impressive is still the great blue heron, especially in flight, when its six-foot wingspan is on full display.

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We also got a look at our first anhinga, the “snake bird”. They’re funny, awkward things.

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The red-shouldered hawk is majestic.

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Our tour over, we got back into Caroline and drove through one final lake as we left the park to continue toward the Keys.

IMG_6668 by PunIntented

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